Chatham House Briefing

Image source/description: A stack of recycled paper ready to be bound into books at a workshop in Kolkata, India. The workshop is run by a local NGO that provides skills training to women who used to be informal waste collectors. Photo: Felix Preston.
A Wider Circle? The Circular Economy in Developing Countries


  • There is growing optimism about the potential of the ‘circular economy’ (CE) as a new model for sustainable growth in developing countries. A CE is one in which products are recycled, repaired or reused rather than thrown away, and in which waste from one process becomes an input into other processes. In recent months there has been CE-related activity in countries as diverse as Laos, Rwanda and Colombia.
  • A CE strategy could help lower-income countries ‘leapfrog’ to a more sustainable development pathway that avoids locking in resource-intensive practices and infrastructure. But a stronger evidence base is needed to show how the agenda can deliver opportunities for industrialization, as well as addressing environmental insecurity.
  • Lower-income countries are in many ways more ‘circular’ than their developed-economy counterparts – the question is how to turn this into a development opportunity. Much economic activity in lower-income countries revolves around sorting and reusing waste. However, higher-value, employment-generating opportunities for reuse and remanufacturing are yet to be captured.
  • The existence of circular activities in developing countries provides excellent political ‘entry points’, which could enable governments, the private sector, civil society and other actors to promote innovative economic models. The CE could provide a powerful narrative, helping to build momentum around a set of ideas that can be applied in and tailored to multiple sectors or cities.
  • There is a window of opportunity in which to align the efforts of development organizations and partner countries. Donors are exploring how the agenda should be aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. Wider international cooperation on the CE could involve trade partnerships, regional hubs or pilot zones.